Television news may seem old school for generations that don’t bother with cable subscriptions, but it’s still a powerful force behind a trending problem. In a retro twist, a new study in the July 15 issue of Science Advances finds that TV may be a stronger driver of partisan news consumption among Americans than online news.
The study, in which scientists analyzed billions of browsing and viewing events between 2016 and 2019, estimates that 17% of Americans follow politically partisan news diets by consuming television news, compared with roughly 4% who follow partisan news diets by consuming online news. Furthermore, the findings suggest that television news consumers are several times more likely to maintain their partisan news diets from one month to the next and reveals that partisan news channel audiences are on the rise, even as the overall television news audience is shrinking.
“Researchers who focus exclusively on what people produce, distribute, and consume with written word are capturing just a small fraction of people’s information diets,” said Daniel Muise, a computational social scientist at Stanford University, founder of the startup Screenlake, and the first author of the study. “Researchers, journalists, and the public need to turn their focus to where the action is, in order to really understand and address our societal concerns around news, information, partisanship, and democracy.”
Broadcast isn’t dead
While empirical studies of online news media have suggested that only a small minority of Americans have become siloed according to political ideology by the news they consume, this research tends to omit the news Americans view on television.
“Online news is new and exciting, and easier to get data on,” said Muise. “Researchers in our field typically spend way less time watching TV than the modal American. For most people, TV isn’t as exciting of a topic, but it is still a huge portion of our society’s media diet, and even larger portion of our news diet.”
“We went into this work building on a host of recent academic research, including our own, that showed how concerns about online filter bubbles leading into echo chambers [closed news environments in which partisan views are reinforced] were over-blown,” added David Rothschild, an economist at Microsoft Research in New York City and an author of the study.
To incorporate television news into the literature on partisan audience segregation, Muise, Rothschild, and their colleagues analyzed data collected by the Nielsen Company (an information, data and market measurement firm) between January 2016 and December 2019. This included two large representative panels, each with data from tens of thousands of Americans who agreed to have their media habits tracked. One panel included data from internet users whose computer web browser URLs were tracked each second, while the other contained data from viewers whose TVs were tracked every minute, providing the TV channels and programs the viewer watched. The researchers identified news websites and programs within these data panels, coded them for partisan bias, and calculated the partisan bias of each panelist’s news diet based on their browsing and viewing history. Based on these news diet calculations, the team could determine broader patterns in the partisan bias of American news diets and draw direct comparisons between TV watching and online browsing.
“Unique data and methods allowed us to look at this question more holistically and flexibly than previous research.”
Muise noted that the team’s individual-level consumption data for both online and TV news is a rare asset for studies in the field.
Ultimately, the researchers found that while only a minority of American television viewers belong to partisan-segregated news audiences, this minority is much larger and more consistent than partisan-segregated online news audiences. They also discovered that while partisan news diets tend to be temporary for consumers of either type of media, partisan TV news diets are the more persistent of the two. Partisan TV news diets had a roughly one-in-four chance of lasting six months, while partisan online news diets had only a roughly one-in-20 chance of lasting the same duration of time.
“We were surprised by the strength of the partisan divide in TV news consumption, and its continued prevalence and growth even as people cycle of out linear TV,” said Muise. “And, conditional on being partisan-segregated, TV is much more extreme with very rigid groups of all partisan channels, versus a more subtle partisan segregation online.”
Next, Muise plans to direct his research towards more thoroughly and directly understanding news consumption. Rothschild and the rest of the team plan to explore other aspects of American news beyond its consumption.
“[We will study] what is being produced on television and online, how this news is distributed and consumed, and what that means for our understanding of the world and how we interact in society,” said Rothschild.